Stop & Frisk and the Politics of Crime in Chicago

Author: Wesley G. Skogan
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2022. 274 pages.
Reviewer: Paul Bleakley | June 2023

Chicago experienced a rise in crime over the course of 2013, which included a 20 percent increase in murders. This led to recently elected mayor Rahm Emanuel being labelled the “murder mayor” by city leaders. The response from the Chicago Police Department was to ramp up its use of an often-controversial policing tactic: stop and frisk. Police in Chicago stopped and often (but not always) frisked around 718,000 people in 2014—around three times the stop rate in New York City­–and was typically seen as the most zealous location to use stop and frisk in the United States. Lo and behold, as stop and frisk rates rose, the murder rate in Chicago also dropped–with most onlookers anticipating an even greater increase in the use of the practice as a result. However, in reality, the opposite happened: from 2015 on, the use of stop and frisk in Chicago almost completely collapsed.

In Stop & Frisk and the Politics of Crime in Chicago (2023), Wesley G. Skogan explores both the rise of stop and frisk as a policing strategy in Chicago and the precipitous factors leading to its demise. Skogan makes clear that stop and frisk is not a particularly innovative approach in itself: he notes towards the end of the book that “police have always used their discretionary powers to make stops” and, as such, it was not exactly re-inventing the wheel when it became such a major pillar of the police’s organizational strategy in the 2010s. Wesley G. Skogan, Stop & Frisk and the Politics of Crime in Chicago 214 (2023). Skogan’s objective in this book is to separate objective analysis of stop and frisk’s deterrent impact from what he describes as the other “moving parts that make up a big-city police department,” like politics, which are a focus of the narrative established from the very beginning of the work. Id. at 9. However, it is not just an assessment of stop and frisk’s effectiveness on a quantitative level that concerns Skogan: in his words, “throughout this book the victims of unwarranted stops are a principal concern” with a recognition that there is a “legitimacy cost” that police department’s face when “cold” people are swept up in a proactive, sometimes aggressive, policing practice like stop and frisk. Id. at 10.

Skogan’s credentials for writing Stop & Frisk are impeccable and, in many ways, the book represents the culmination of thirty years of research on various elements of policing in Chicago. A long-time professor at Northwestern University, Skogan has been actively involved in Chicago policing for many years in the city’s north. Aside from conducting research, he has delivered training to Chicago police officers and served as an advisor to several city police chiefs. This provides Skogan with considerable insider-status, which allows for an evaluation of the rise and fall of stop and frisk in Chicago that is incisive. His research for this book is heavily grounded in statistical analysis to determine the efficacy and impacts of stop and frisk, as may be expected given the metrics-driven nature of modern evidence-based policing. Yet this is not a book that is simply served upon an altar of uncritical quantitative data. Skogan expertly folds in lessons learned from community surveys, in-depth interviews with police and city leaders, and ethnographic observations derived from “ride-alongs” with police in the field. He even dabbles in digital ethnography and incorporates anonymous online blog comments from Chicago police officers to provide a much-needed unfiltered perspective on stop and frisk. The result of this mixed-method approach is a book that provides a holistic view of stop and frisk and presents many sides of the debate on stop and frisk. Overall, the approach contributes to the thorough evaluation of the practice that Skogan ultimately produces.

In Stop & Frisk, Skogan walks readers through the issues around stop and frisk in a methodical way, beginning by extensively using crime data to establish the context in which the policy rose to favor in the 2010s. He is particularly critical of how CompStat police data systems were used in Chicago—though he is not against the use of CompStat in general terms. Skogan outlines how the pressures of bringing crime rates down in Chicago caused stop and frisk to be relied on “as the principal solution to the city’s violence problem,” Id. at 14, in turn resulting in “almost pathological” political pressure on local commands to increase rates. Id. at 66. Skogan moves on in Chapter 4 to explore local community experiences and perceptions of stop and frisk, examining what happens during such encounters through the lens of procedural justice.

From there, he goes on to discuss police perceptions of both stop and frisk and the public in general. He highlights the fractious relationship between Chicago police officers and the public, noting that officers “felt overworked and more at risk, two of the banes of police work…The wedge between police and community in Chicago was largest in the places where potentially abrasive encounters between them were concentrated.” Id. at 16. The tensions between the public and police became even more profound in the wake of the legitimacy crisis of 2015 when a “cascade effect” originating with the police murder of Laquan McDonald reverberated through the Chicago community–precipitating the 85 percent collapse in the use of stop and frisk in the years that followed. These events are outlined in Chapters 6 and 7, with the latter also exploring “the third-largest violent crime surge in Chicago’s modern history [which] quickly followed the collapse of stop & frisk.” Id. at 17.

As the title of the book reflects, Skogan pins much of the success and, ultimately, the failure of stop and frisk on city politics. He points out that whereas policing used to be about mounting a rapid response to crimes in progress or already committed, it was now a case where “rather than cleaning up in the aftermath of crime, police have taken responsibility for its occurrence. This was a political choice.” Id. at 2. Skogan’s historical treatment clearly illustrates how stop and frisk was a response to pressures to “fix” the problems in Chicago, which suffered in comparison to New York City where a decline in the murder rate was widely conflated with ‘broken windows’ strategies that were heavily reliant on practices like stop and frisk. In Chicago, the election of Mayor Emanuel on a ‘tough on crime’ platform and the hiring of Superintendent Garry McCarthy, a New York police veteran, to lead the Chicago Police Department were indicators of an overarching policy shift toward proactive policing strategies like stop and frisk. While they may have had some deterrent impact, Skogan is nevertheless critical of the politicized nature of police policy development. It seems he has some support in this criticism among police themselves: he cites a survey of Chicago police officers which reports 75 percent agreed that they “could do a better job if politicians weren’t always getting in the way.” Id. at 111.

Any discussion of stop and frisk would be remiss if it did not consider the profound racial and class disparities that usually creep into strategic enforcement. Skogan does not hold back on this front, presenting copious amounts of data showing that there were unquestionable racial dimensions to stop and frisk’s application in Chicago that called the efficacy of the entire policy into question. He notes that in 2014, 90 percent of those stopped were either Black or Hispanic, and, worse, from 2013 to 2015, there were more enforcement actions in Black neighborhoods each year than there were people living there. Id. at 2. Although most Chicagoans walked away from a stop with no legal consequences whatsoever, the true impacts of stop and frisk were experienced in the waning trust between police and the public. Skogan points out that “in Chicago, being stopped for investigative purposes was the predominant experience residents had with the police,” and, as a result, interactions that took place during these stops had knock-on effects when it came to community perceptions of police legitimacy on the street-level. Id. at 83-84.

Skogan uses the principles of procedural justice as a barometer of how well stops were conducted in Chicago, based on self-reported responses derived from community surveys. The results were staggering but unsurprising: African Americans displayed a significantly lower sense of procedural justice during stop and frisk interactions than Whites. This is especially important because Skogan finds positive experiences of procedural justice in stops have the potential to improve public perceptions of police use of procedural justice, while negative interactions have twice as much of an impact in the opposite direction. Id. at 100-01. Even so, this book acknowledges the challenges of balancing evidence-based practice with unbiased policing outcomes in a Chicago which remains heavily racially segregated from a geographic standpoint. Through a detailed statistical analysis of crime rates in the 2010s, Skogan comes to the conclusion that “not everyone [in Chicago] was equally safe, and these benign trends [general public safety] were not being felt everywhere in the city.” Id. at 25. He notes that evidence-based deployment of resources would suggest that police be sent where the crime is worst, and in a city where firearm-related deaths were fifty times higher among Black youths than White, this would inevitably result in a targeted policing response that disproportionately impacted the Black community.

This is one of the barriers to the successful implementation of stop and frisk that Skogan grapples with throughout this book. Skogan presents a complicated and, often, conflicted perspective on stop and frisk. He concludes that “stop & frisk was quite inefficient, of unimpressive effectiveness, and raised serious equity issues … a toxic mix of both under-policing and over-policing was going on at the same time.” Id. at 17. That said, Skogan also points to limited success in the policy’s implementation in Chicago. He notes that 2016-18 data shows that, even though the practice had been wound back considerably by that point, stop and frisk still accounted for 7,000 firearms seized by police out of a total of 19,580 — a significant 35 percent. However, he also notes that despite the dropping rate of stops, the “hit” rate of successful stops in the period remained essentially stable: only 25 percent of stops resulted in actions before 2016, with a marginal rise to 27 percent in 2016-18. For Skogan, this leads to “the uncomfortable-for-some conclusion that stops did have deterrent value but (uncomfortable for others) only a moderate one.” Id. at 177.

In the end, Skogan identifies a range of problems involved in the mooted solutions designed to improve stop and frisk–from better procedural justice training to enhanced use of body-worn cameras. He does provide some suggestions for policies to complement, or even supplant, stop and frisk and cites the particular successes of focused deterrence programs. However, even then, he ponders whether focused deterrence is a “silver bullet” to solve all the problems of violence in American cities, concluding that it is not “but perhaps it can buy some time for longer-term investments.” Id. at 235. If it is longer-term investments we need, Skogan’s book is a necessary intervention showing clearly how a policy with limited efficacy (and a legion of issues around bias and procedural justice) can become such a crucial lynchpin of policing practice due to political concerns — and how those same concerns can cause such policies to be abandoned, when the political climate changes. Skogan’s work is a masterclass on how to evaluate policing policy from a multitude of angles, consolidating three decades of research to produce the most comprehensive possible examination of stop and frisk in a major American city. For scholars and practitioners alike, Stop & Frisk and the Politics of Crime in Chicago is a much-needed intervention in the field, stripping political agenda as much as possible and instead presenting the reality of the stop and frisk’s impacts, for better or worse. 

Paul Bleakley is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven.

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